Seeing and Believing 177: Steve McQueen’s Widows and the Coen Brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Christ and Pop Culture | 11/16/2018 | Wade Bearden
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Each of Joel and Ethan Coen’s films feature some sort of religious icon. When I say “religious icon,” I mean an object that works as a doorway for entering the moral or sacred aspects of each story. In The Big Lebowski, it’s a rug; a rug that sends its owner (Jeff Bridges) on a not-so-epic journey of crime, passion, and bowling. In Inside Llewyn Davis, the icon is a runaway cat that manages to wander back home on its own, thus reminding the film’s protagonist of life’s stubborn circularity. The sacred image in A Serious Man is probably the easiest to spot. Protagonist Larry Gopnik just can’t get his television antenna to pick up the right channels—an illustration of the white noise he also receives from God.

In the Coen brothers’ newest project, Netflix’s The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the movie’s “icon” isn’t difficult to find either. It’s the film’s framing device—a book that also goes by the title The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Each chapter in the book tells a different story set in the old American West, and bookends the movie’s six segments. After the final chapter of the story, the book closes shut, revealing a donkey’s backside on the volume’s worn, green cover. The end.

Onset - Coen - Brothers - Concern - Wild

From the onset, the Coen brothers mark their concern for the Wild West canon—they’re people who know and respect the book. Buster Scruggs is a western about westerns (including our ideas about this time in U.S. history). And the Coens stick to the script, mostly. There are saloon shootouts and cowboys fighting Native Americans. Duels and exaggerated deaths. Everything you’d expect to find in an old paperback western or one of those classics from Hollywood’s Golden Age.

By playing to tradition, while at once forging their own trail, the Coens manage to both nod to...
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